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The Basement Interviews 
Freeing the Code 

Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Movement, speaks to 
Richard Poynder 

Published 21 st March 2006 1 

Richard Stallman was born in Manhattan, NY, in 1953. An only child whose 
parents divorced when he was nine, Stallman led a solitary childhood. 
Talented in math and physics, and with a fascination for reading about ancient 
civilisations, he became obsessed with computers long before he had access 
to one, and at the age of nine he was writing computer programs on paper. 

His mother remarried, but Stallman never felt he truly had a home until he 
attended Harvard, where he studied for a degree in physics. In 1971, while 
still a freshman, Stallman began working at the MIT Artificial Intelligence 
Laboratory, 2 where he became a "hacker", 3 and took part in the development 
of the Al Lab's fabled operating system, the Incompatible Timesharing 
System 4 (ITS). 

It was at the Al Lab that Stallman developed his ideas about Free Software — 
a process kick-started by his failed attempt to adapt a Xerox printer to 
automatically alert users when their print jobs had completed. To do so 
Stallman needed the printer source code. This was denied him, on the 
grounds that it was proprietary information. 

The interview took place in June 2005 ( 
interviews.html ) 

2 The MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory was an interdisciplinary research entity at MIT which 
became one of the most influential and accomplished in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics. 
Research at MIT in the field of Artificial Intelligence began in 1959. In 1963, the (then) "Al Group" 
was incorporated into the newly -formed Project MAC, only to split off again in 1970, as the MIT 
Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. MIT Al Lab 

3 A hacker is a person who creates and modifies computer software and computer hardware, including 
computer programming, administration, and security. In computer programming, a hacker is a 
programmer who hacks or reaches a goal by employing a series of modifications to exploit or extend 
existing code or resources. In computer security, however, a hacker is a person able to exploit a system 
or gain unauthorised access through skill and tactics. Thus for many the word has taken on a negative 
connotation that earlier hackers like Stallman resent. Stallman has written on the "true" meaning of the 
word hacker, and how the media has overly focussed on the negative meaning at: 

4 ITS, the Incompatible Timesharing System, was an early, revolutionary, and influential MIT time- 
sharing operating system; it was developed principally by the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT. 
In the spirit of hacker humour it was called the Incompatible Timesharing System — a reference to the 
earliest MIT time-sharing operating system, the Compatible Time-Sharing System, which dated from 
the early 1960s. 

5 The human-readable source code is necessary in order to modify software programs since the 
computer-executable code generated from "compiling" the source code is inexplicable to humans. 
Decompilation is very difficult. Moreover, a great deal of the original programmer's instructions, 
including commentary, notations, and specifications, are not included in the translation from source to 
object code during compilation. 

Angry that without it he was unable to make things better for his colleagues, 
Stallman began pondering on what he calls "the ethics of the issue." His 
conclusion: sharing information is an important way in which humans co- 
operate, so anyone refusing to share source code is committing a hostile act. 

But it was a subsequent event that was to prove the real incentive for 
founding the Free Software Movement. In the early 1980s MIT decided to 
license the LISP system 6 it was developing to two spin-off companies set up 
by ex-hackers. 7 One of these companies, Symbolics, later announced that it 
would not allow MIT to copy across to its own system any of the 
improvements and additions made to the software by Symbolics. 

Interpreting this as an aggressive attempt to kill off the MIT system, and so 
make the Al Lab dependent on Symbolics, Stallman embarked on a legendary 
hacking campaign, independently replicating on the MIT system all the 
improvements made by Symbolics (and also passing them on to the 
competitor spin-off company LMI). Stallman's efforts were later memorialised 
by author Steven Levy in his book Hackers 8 

Eventually the Al Lab switched to a newer Symbolics machine — a machine 
on which the MIT software Stallman had been working on couldn't run. 
Concluding that the MIT system was now "non-free software", and convinced 
that his community had been "destroyed", Stallman decided to launch a 
project devoted to writing "free software", and in January 1 984 he left the Al 
Lab in order to do so. 

From that point on Stallman has dedicated his whole life to the cause of Free 
Software. In 1984 he launched the GNU Project, 9 with the aim of developing a 
free UNIX-like operating system 10 ; in 1985 he founded the Free Software 
Foundation so that programmers could be employed 11 to help write the GNU 

6 Originally specified in 1958, Lisp is the second-oldest high-level programming language in 
widespread use today; only Fortran is older. Like Fortran, Lisp has changed a great deal since its early 
days, and a number of dialects have existed over its history. Today, the most widely -known general- 
purpose Lisp dialects are Common Lisp and Scheme. programming language 

7 Symbolics, Inc and Lisp Machines, Inc. (LMI) were spun out of the Al Lab and staffed by ex 
hackers, including Russell Noftsker and Bill G o: ( Symbolics I and tchard Greenblatt and Thomas 
Knight ( LMI) http : //en. wikipedia . org/wiki/Sy mbolics 

8 Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Steven Levy, Penguin, 1984. Stallman's hacking efforts 
are covered in a chapter called "The last of the true hackers". 

9 The name GNU is a recursive acronym for "GNU's Not UNIX", which was chosen because its design 
is UNIX-like, but it contains no actual UNIX code. The plan for the GNU operating system was 
announced in September 1983 and software development work began in January 1984. The project to 
develop GNU is known as the GNU Project, and programs released under the auspices of the GNU 
Project are called GNU packages or GNU programs. Prominent components of the GNU system 
include the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC), the GNU C Library (ghbc), the GNU Emacs text editor, 
and the GNOME graphical desktop. 

10 Unix or UNIX is a computer operating system originally developed in the 1960s and 1970s by a 
group of AT&T Bell Labs employees including Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, and Douglas Mcllroy. 
http : //en . wikipedi a . or g/w iki/Unix 

11 The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is a non-profit organisation founded in October 1985 to support 
the Free Software Movement and in particular the GNU project. From its founding until the mid-1990s 
FSF's funds were mostly used to employ software developers to write free software. Since the mid- to 

system; and in 1989 he created the General Public Licence, or GPL 12 — a 
revolutionary new type of copyright licence that he dubbed "copyleft". 

What is revolutionary about copyleft is that it exploits traditional copyright law 
— whose very raison d'etre is to make creative expression proprietary — to 
achieve the opposite effect. By attaching a copyleft licence to their software, 
developers are able to assert ownership, but then give away some of their 
rights — particularly the right to copy and modify the software in order to allow 
others to build on it. In doing this, rather than simply placing the software in 
the public domain, they (the creators) are able to stipulate the terms on which 
they are making the software freely available, and so control how it is used by 

To better express his vision, Stallman articulated the "Four Freedoms of Free 
Software". These are: the freedom to run a program as you wish; the freedom 
to study the source code and change it to do what you wish; the freedom to 
make copies and to distribute them to others; and the freedom to publish or, 
more generally, distribute modified versions. 

"I don't believe that software should be owned," Levy quotes Stallman as 
saying in 1983, because the practice "sabotages humanity as a whole. It 
prevents people from getting the maximum benefit out of the program's 

Nevertheless, Free Software has been widely misunderstood: As Stallman 
frequently has to stress, Free Software does not imply software that is "free of 
charge", but software that users are free to run, study, copy, and redistribute 
modified versions of. As such, its source code must always be freely 
available, and it must never be made proprietary. 

For this reason the GPL doesn't only specify that software licensed under it 
must be free, but that the software code must remain free even when it is 
modified and redistributed. This latter characteristic is often described — to 
Stallman's ire — as having a viral effect, since it encourages the proliferation 
of Free Software. 13 

late 1990s there are now many companies and individuals writing free software, so FSF's employees 
and volunteers mostly work on legal and structural issues for the free software community. Financial 
figures available via Guidestar indicate that gross receipts in 2004 were $1,030,490, of which $619,148 
was from gifts and grants. FSF currently employs nine people. 

12 GNU General Public License (GNU GPL or simply GPL) remains the most popular free software 
license. The latest version of the license, version 2, was released in 1991. GPLv3 is currently being 
developed ( http : //gplv3 . f sf . org) . 

13 As Stallman commented to me in 2003 after reading an I had written "To compare anything 
to a virus is extremely unfriendly. As regards the GPL, it is also inaccurate. The GPL's domain does 
not spread by proximity or contact, only by deliberate inclusion of GPL -covered code 

in your program. It spreads like a spider plant, not like a virus. People who hate the GPL have the right 
to say that it "contaminates" othei software: that's misleading, but they have freedom of speech. 
However, if you don't hate the GPL, would you please not use smear words like "viral" and 
"contaminate" to describe it?" 

By the early 1990s the GNU operating system was practically complete. 
However, following the repeated delay of its kernel — the GNU Hurd 14 — the 
system lacked a vital component. Into this vacuum flowed Linux, a free kernel 
developed in Finland by Linus Torvalds. 15 

Since Linux was also UNIX-based, it was compatible with the GNU system — 
so hackers began to combine Linux with the GNU components to create a 
complete operating system, and a plethora of GNU/Linux "distributions" 
quickly spread around the world. 

To Stallman's growing dismay, however, these distributions were increasingly 
referred to not as GNU/Linux, but simply Linux — a shortening that not only 
ignored Stallman's pivotal role but, to his frustration and anger, the philosophy 
behind Free Software. 

To his further dismay, in 1998 the Open Source Initiative was launched. 16 
Adopting a more pragmatic and business-oriented approach, open source 
advocates played up the technical benefits of the GNU/Linux system, and 
downplayed Stallman's concepts of freedom. In short, the very community he 
had set out to help was undermining Stallman's aims. 

Non-cognoscenti often struggle to understand the subtleties between Open 
Source and Free Software. After all, both groups believe that the source code 
of computer programs should be freely available, and most open source 
software is still licensed under Stallman's GPL. 

In those subtleties, however, lies an ideological gulf. On the open source side 
the emphasis is on creating better, cheaper and more efficient software. Free 
software advocates, by contrast, continue to stress the philosophy of the four 
freedoms outlined by Stallman — for FSF advocates it is an issue of ethics 
and ethical behaviour, not technical superiority. 

Open source advocates also highlight the merits of the new software 
development model pioneered by Torvalds when creating Linux (and 

The GNU Hurd is the GNU project's replacement for the UNIX kernel. The Hurd is a collection of 
servers that run on the Mach microkernel to implement file systems, network protocols, file access 
control, and other features that are implemented by the UNIX kernel or similar kernels (such as Linux). 
Development on the Hurd began in 1990. By the early 1990s, it was the only major part of the GNU 
OS that was incomplete. Today no official release of the Hurd has yet been made, and the system is 
currently unstable. 

15 In the narrowest sense, the term Linux refers to the Linux kernel, but it is commonly used to describe 
entire UNIX-like operating systems that are based on the Linux kernel combined with libraries and 
tools from the GNU Project and other sources. 

16 The Open Source Initiative (OSI) is an organisation dedicated to promoting open source software. It 
was founded in February 1998 by Bruce Perens and Eric Raymond when Netscape Communications 
Corporation, published the source code for its flagship Netscape Communicator product as free 
software, due to lowering profit margins and competition with Microsoft's Internet Explorer software. 
OSI came about when a group of people interested in free software and GNU/Linux decided to 
introduce a new marketing term for free software, seeking to position it as bu in fri n.lh and less 
ideologically loaded. This led to creating the term "open source" and a schism with Richard Stallman 
and his Free Software Foundation. Eric Raymond was president of OSI from its founding until 
February 2005. 

compellingly articulated in 1997 by Eric Raymond in his essay The Cathedral 
and the Bazaar 17 ). 

In short, by exploiting the Internet, Torvalds was able to organise and co- 
ordinate thousands of geographically dispersed volunteer developers to write 
software code in a new and more efficient manner than had historically been 
possible. Raymond characterised this as being like a bazaar, in which a 
babble of different agendas and approaches is — somewhat counter- 
intuitively — able to produce a better end result than the top-down approach 
famously enunciated in 1975 in by Frederick Brooks in his book The Mythical 
Man-Month. 18 

Brooks' view was that writing software is like building Reims Cathedral. 19 As 
such, he argued, its design "must proceed from one mind, or from a small 
number of agreeing resonant minds". Raymond, however, argued that the 
Bazaar approach developed by Torvalds both speeds up development time, 
and reduces the number of bugs. As he put it: "Given enough eyeballs, all 
bugs are shallow." 20 In other words, given a large enough pool of peer 
reviewers, every problem will be obvious to someone, and so fixed. 

Since Free Software is about ethics, not efficiency, for Stallman such 
technical benefits are merely a bonus, not an essential requirement. 
Moreover, he argues, focusing on technical superiority distracts people from 
the underlying philosophy of Free Software. 

But asked to choose between Free Software and Open Source software, and 
often struggling to understand the philosophy of Free Software, hackers 
increasingly embraced the Open Source vision — which rapidly acquired 
greater mindshare than the more rigorous ethical approach promulgated by 

As a consequence, says Stallman, it is now hard to find a distribution of 
GNU/Linux that meets the FSF's definition of free, and "the goal of making a 
completely free operating system has been not just forgotten but almost totally 

Unprepared to compromise over the dilution of the free software philosophy, 
and a frequent critic of the Open Source Movement, Stallman has become a 
controversial figure. 

Nevertheless, the GPL remains a core component of both the Free and Open 
Source software (FOSS) movements. Whether it can maintain this centrality, 

The Cathedra! and the Bazaar Eric S Raymond, O'Reilly, 2001 

18 The Mythical Man-Month and Other Essays on Software Engineering, Frederick P Brooks, Addison 
Wesley, 1995 (Anniversary Edition) 

19 The Notre-Dame de Reims (Our Lady of Rheims) is the Cathedral of Reims, France, where the kings 
of France were once crowned. 

20 Raymond described this as Linus' Law, not least because it was based on something that Torvalds 
had said. More formally . Raymond expressed it thus: "Given a large enough beta-tester and co- 
developer base, almost every problem will be characterised quickly and the fix obvious to someone." 

wntmgs/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar/arO 1 s( 

however, is debatable. Current attempts to develop Version 3.0 of the licence 
have attracted considerable criticism. Specifically, the new licence's attempts 
to prevent the merging of free and proprietary software into a single system, 
and its anti-patent and anti-DRM provisions 21 have not been well received by 
some. In January, for instance, Torvalds indicated that he did not intend to 
convert Linux to v3 because of its DRM provisions. 22 

Indeed, many are predicting that GPLv3 could further marginalise Stallman. 
Writing recently 23 in c\net, for instance, the president of the Association for 
Competitive Technology 24 Jonathan Zuck commented: "Stallman and the Free 
Software Foundation have every right to continue their ideological crusade 
against proprietary software, but will anyone follow?" 

Few, however, dispute the seminal contribution Stallman made to what one 
might call the wider "free knowledge movement", and he remains a force to be 
reckoned with. The GPL has also been highly influential outside the software 
space. The increasingly popular range of Creative Commons 25 licences, for 
instance, is a direct extension of copyleft principles to other media, including 
text, video, and music. 

In recent years, Stallman has also become a very effective campaigner 
against corporate and government attempts to allow software to be patented, 
and he is an energetic and constant critic of digital rights management, 26 
which he prefers to call "digital restrictions management". 

In 1990 Stallman received a $240,000 MacArthur Fellowship. 27 This ended in 
1995, and today he survives courtesy of the constant speaking invitations he 
receives. He is, he says, now like a medieval king, who has to keep moving in 
order not to be too great a financial burden on his subjects. 

" This interview was undertaken before the process of drafting GPLv3 began. Consequently there is no 
discussion of it with Stallman. The new licence is expected to be completed by 2007. 

22 Torvalds: No GPL 3 for Linux, c|net Stephen Shankland, January 26 th 2006. 
6031504.htmr' =ntop&tag=nl.e433 

23 GPL 3.0: A bonfire of the vanities, Jonathan Zuck, March 10 til 2006 3-6047707.html 

24 The Association for Competitive Technology is a Washington, DC-based trade group specialising in 
technology issues. ACT's membership roster has some 3,000 companies including Microsoft. 

25 Launched in 2002, Creative Commons offers a range of protections and freedoms for authors and 
artists based not on the "all rights reserved" of traditional copyright but on a voluntary "some rights 
reserved" principle, http ://creativecommons. org/ 

26 Digital rights management (DRM) is the umbrella term referring to any of several technologies used 
to enforce pre-defined policies controlling access to software, music, movies, or other digital data. 
DRM critics argue that the phrase "digital rights management" is a misnomer and the term "digital 
restrictions management" is a more accurate characterisation of the functionality of DRM systems. rights management 

27 The MacArthur Fellows Program or MacArthur Fellowship (sometimes nicknamed the "genius 
grant") is an award given by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation each year to typically 
20 to 40 citizens or residents of the USA, of any age and working in any field, who "show exceptional 
merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work" . According to the Foundation website, 
"the fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person's 
originality, insight, and potential". 
http://www.macfound.Org/site/c.lkLXJ8MQKrH/b.959463/k.9D7D/Fellows Program.htm 


I catch up with Stallman in Brussels, Belgium, where he has come to attend a 
public demonstration against software patents. 28 He is ensconced in an 
apartment in the French quarter, across the way from a chestnut-tree-lined 
park that, on this sunny afternoon, is home to a medley of prams, dogs, bikes, 
and flies. 

Stallman himself answers the door. Without his shoes on, he is considerably 
smaller than I envisaged. His long curly black hair, now going grey, and untidy 
shaggy beard make him the very picture of what my wife's Scottish Aunt 
Nonie would have called a "Heery Oobie" [aka hairy hippie]. 

His green eyes meet mine unemotionally; they seem almost puzzled. As he 
appears unsure of the formalities I push my way in and shake his hand. We 
climb a flight of stairs and walk into a long room with a wooden parquet floor 
partially covered with red rugs. 

At the stair end is a wooden table and benches. On the table is placed a bottle 
of red wine, some cheese and a bag of chocolate chip cookies. At the other 
end of the room is a long green wooden bay window. Positioned around the 
room are several pieces of antique wooden furniture, possibly walnut. In one 
corner is a large TV; in another a hi-fi system. On the floor is a very large toy 

We move across to the window end where two large sofas are positioned 
beside each other to form an L-shape, both also covered with red rugs. A 
nearby coffee table is heaped with books and paper. 

Stallman sits on a sofa with his back to the window, a laptop computer 
whirring beside him. I perch on the other sofa, beside a beautiful black cat that 
sleeps throughout the interview. Stallman is wearing a red T-shirt that sits 
uncomfortably on his potbelly. I note that half way along his forearm, up and 
over his elbow, is a long scar — a remnant of several painful operations 
following a bad fall in an icy airport in Finland. 

I have already had a couple of phone conversations with Stallman, during 
which he revealed himself to be a somewhat bad-tempered interviewee. An 
odd mixture of the amiable and the irascible, he is willing to share oceans of 
time with journalists and email enquirers, but snappish and irritable when 
answering their questions. 

28 Not without effect perhaps. Shortly after this interview European politicians threw out a 
controversial bill — the Computer Implemented Inventions Directive — that would have allowed 
software to be patented in Europe. Specifically, in July 2005 The European Parliament voted 648 to 1 
to reject the Directive. 

Today he is especially crotchety. As he talks his voice oscillates between a 
pleasant Jack-Nicholson-like baritone and the peeved falsetto of a frustrated 
adolescent; the latter occurring whenever he concludes that his interlocutor is 
being obtuse, or asking stupid questions. 

Before we start Stallman walks to the hi-fi and inserts a CD. It turns out to be 
The Antenna Repairmen, 29 an "experimental percussion trio" with a passion 
for ceramic instruments; these range from udu drums 30 and bowls, to tubes, 
vases, and ghatams. 31 As a consequence, our conversation is interspersed 
with odd percussive noises, and the muffled rattle-and-cracking sound one 
might envisage emanating from the kitchen of an inebriated chef. All in all, it 
seems an appropriate accompaniment to Stallman's querulous mood. 

For the first part of the interview Stallman lounges on the sofa minutely 
examining his split ends, and picking at his hands and T-shirt. Every now and 
then he sits upright and snaps: "That is total confusion; I can't answer that"; 
or: "I don't understand what you are talking about." At one point he accuses 
me of misrepresenting something he said; another time he complains that my 
questions are driving him "nuts". 

When I counter that he is a somewhat combative person he gets up from the 
sofa and spends the rest of the interview on his feet, occasionally taking 
sauntering walks to the further reaches of the room to grab a chocolate chip 
cookie, now and then throwing out his feet in small dance kicks. (In his 
younger days, Stallman was a folk dancing aficionado.) At one point he 
begins playing with and pummelling the large toy bear on the floor. 

Two hours later the black cat sleeping next to me gets up, stretches, and 
starts to scratch the rug on the sofa. I take this as a signal for me to depart. 

As I am about to leave, however, Stallman engages me in conversation again 
at the stair head. Having earlier refused to comment on anyone from the 
Open Source Movement, he now invites me to sit at the wooden table at the 
end of the room, and turn my tape recorder back on. Then, between 
mouthfuls of cheese, he starts to complain about how Eric Raymond always 
exaggerates his early contribution to Free Software. Raymond does this, 
Stallman asserts, in order to give his later apostasy greater weight. 

" Arthur Jarvmen, Robert Fernandez, and M B Gordy founded the Antenna Repairmen in 1978 while 
graduate students in the percussion department at CalArts . They wanted to perform their own works, 
and to explore repertoire that was well off the beaten path. Most of the early Repairmen performances 
included elements of theatre and poetry. The rationale behind the group's name is that it can't possibly 
give you a clue as to what they do; you just have to check it out. 

30 The udu is an African vessel drum originated by the Igbo people of Nigeria. The instrument is played 
by hand and produces a special and unique bass sound by quickly hitting the big hole in it. 
http://en.wi ' ki/Udu 

31 A ghatam is a percussion instrument, used in South Indian Carnatic music. It is nothing but an 
earthenware pot; the artist uses both hands, wrists, fingers and nails to hit the outer surface of the walls 
of the ghatam. An airy low-pitch sound is created by hitting over the hole. i /Ghatam 

With this extra material on tape I slip back into the sunny streets of Brussels, 
conscious that a film crew will shortly arrive to interview Stallman in 
connection with a documentary they are working on. 

Stallman's parting had been as abrupt and unceremonious as his welcome. 
Walking back to my hotel I conclude that, struggle as he might to connect with 
others, and impatient as he may become with them, Stallman craves the 
company of people. Indeed, I formed the impression that he had held me back 
not because he wanted to rant about Raymond, but simply because he didn't 
want to have to sit on his own until the film crew arrived. 

The interview begins.. 

RP: When did you first come into contact with computers? 

RS: My first contact with computers was by reading an operating system manual at 
summer camp when I was about nine years old. I was so fascinated that I began to 
write programs on paper. 

RP: What -was the appeal? 

RS: I guess in some senses the attraction was that you get to solve lots of puzzles. So 
it was a sort of general-purpose solve-puzzles thing. And the idea that you could 
program a machine to do something — regardless of whether the thing it did was in 
any way useful — I found just fascinating. 

RP: When did you finally get to program for real? 

RS: In 1969, when I was 16, 1 attended the IBM Scientific Centre in New York as an 
after-school activity. We had access to a computer for a while. And since I had no 
applications to use on the computer, the only thing I could do that I found interesting 
was what I had read about in manuals. So I wanted to learn about and write operating 
system software. I became fascinated by the software of the operating system. 

RP: Apart from computers what were your early interests? 

RS: I was interested a lot in math and physics; also history, especially ancient history. 

RP: What did you find interesting about ancient history? 

RS: I found it fascinating to think of ancient civilisations that were very different but 
far away in time and so hard to make out. 

RP: In his book about you Free as in Freedom,' 2 Sam Williams describes you as a 
child prodigy who had to cope with his parents divorcing, and then the death of 
beloved grandparents. I guess you had a dramatic start to life? 

RS: Such things happen to a lot of people but, yes, I found it very painful; and it had a 
powerful effect on me. 

RP: You stayed with your mother, who married again — but you remained an only 
child. Did you feel very sol • a g your early years? 

RS: It wouldn't have occurred to me to think about such a question; but yes, the 
answer is obvious: I felt very solitary when I was a child. 

RP: Sam Williams also talks about the difficulties you had connecting with people as 
a child. He speculates as to whether you had Asperger's Syndrome," and says that 
you got very frustrated that others did not seem to think clearly enough. Is that 

RS: Well, it was clear that I had trouble getting along with people; but there were 
many reasons and I can't say I know what they all were. It is quite clear I don't have 
Asperger's Syndrome, but I have sometimes speculated that I have a slight, "shadow", 
version of it. (Some say that many people within the "normal" range have mild, 
"shadow" versions of various serious conditions). 

RP: Did you find it easier when you arrived at Harvard, where you must have been 
surrounded by other smart people? 

RS: I learned to get along better with people as I got older. In so far as I was older by 
the time I went to Harvard I found it easier. The one thing I never learned, however, 
was how to get along with women in dating. 

RP: Because of your family sanation perhaps? 

32 Free as in Freedom, Sam Williams, O'Reilly, 2002 

33 Asperger syndrome (sometimes called Asperger's syndrome, AS, or the more common shorthand 
Asperger's), is characterised as one of the five pervasive developmental disorders, and is commonly 
referred to as a form of high-functioning autism. In very broad terms, individuals with Asperger's have 
normal or above average intellectual capacity, and atypical or poorly developed social skills, often with 
emotional/social development or integration happening later than usual as a result. 

RS: That's possible. But the usual stuff men learn that enables them to get along with 
women, I never learned. 

RP: While studying at Harvard you also began working at MIT's AI Lab. 

RS: Yes, my job there was essentially to improve the operating system, which 
fascinated me and so, for me, was a perfect job. 

RP: And when you graduated you chose to stay on at the AI Lab. Your degree was in 
physics, so presumably you could have chosen a career in physics or math. Why did 
you stay on at the AI Lab? 

RS: Because with math and physics all I could do was study. With computers, by 
contrast, I could do things that were actually useful to people; so I felt I was achieving 
something, and this gave me a satisfaction far beyond merely learning something. 

RP: Folklore has it that two early experiences you had at the AI Lab influenced your 
subsequent decision to develop Free Software: an attempt by MIT administrators to 
impose passwords on the computer system, and your inability to obtain the source 
code for a Xerox printer. 

RS: There were a number of events. But yes, one was that people tried to introduce 
security. You see, the Incompatible Timesharing System was developed by hackers, 
and they wrote it without any security at all. It was understood that security was a 
method for the administrators to restrict the users. Since the hackers didn't want to 
allow administrators to control them, they decided not to implement security. 
Essentially, they were saying to the administrators: "We just won't let you control 
what we, or any user, can do." By the way, I was not the only one to resist — 
although I did resist longer than anyone else. The whole group shared these views. 

RP: You have described the attempts to impose security on ITS as fascism. Why? 

RS: Actually it wasn't a term I coined: it's the term everyone used. Nevertheless, it's 
quite appropriate. If there are controllers, and they control what everyone can do, their 
philosophy in effect is to prohibit anything that might weaken their control. Consider 
what that philosophy means and how it would be if the rest of your life were run in 
that way. We used to say that a shared computer with internal security is run like a 
police state. 

The ethics of the issue 

RP: The problem with the printer occurred when you wanted to fix it but couldn't get 
access to the source code to do so? 

RS: Not fix it, no. 

RP: To adapt it then? 

RS: Please, stop guessing. I would prefer it if you did not interrupt me when I am 
answering a question. The issue with the printer was that I wanted to make it possible 
for the system to notify users when a job was printed, or if the printer was in trouble. 
That would have allowed people to go and collect their output only when it was 
complete, rather than having to guess. Guessing was difficult because sometimes 
there was a paper jam, or a long queue of jobs. 

The problem was that we didn't have the source code for the printer to enable me to 
do this. I could have asked Xerox but I assumed that if we didn't have the source code 
we couldn't get it. So I didn't ask Xerox. 

RP: What happened then? 

RS: I was told that someone at Carnegie Mellon 34 had the source code, so the next 
time I was in Pittsburgh I sought him out and asked him for it. But he refused, on the 
grounds that he had signed a non-disclosure agreement. 35 That made me very angry. 

RP: Presumably if you had asked Xerox you would have got the same answer, or have 
been asked to sign an NDA yourself. 

RS: Probably, and the danger is that they might have said yes. If that had happened I 
wouldn't have learned the ethics of the issue. 

RP: What do you mean by the ethics of the issue? 

RS: That man had done something wrong when he refused to share the code with me. 
In fact, I thought he was a bastard for saying no, since he could have made things 
much better for the AI Lab by cooperating with us. 

He had also done something wrong when he signed the NDA, which was a promise to 
do something else that was wrong: promising to be hostile to the whole world is an 
extremely nasty thing to do. So signing an NDA in effect was betraying the whole 
world. He should not have done that; and Xerox should not have asked him to. And it 
was thinking about what he had done to us that taught me to appreciate the wrong. 

RP: The -wrong was in refusing to share the source code? 

RS: Right. The point is that sharing knowledge is an important way in which people 
cooperate. To refuse to tell someone what he needs to know is hostile. To promise in 
advance not to tell others is betraying them. 

Carnegie Mellon University is a private research university located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It 
was formed in 1967 by the union of the Carnegie Institute of Technology and the Mellon Institute of 
Industrial Research. Carnegie Mellon is renowned for its unique interdisciplinary environment and as 
an innovative leader in education. The computer science and computer engineering programs are 
considered to be among the best in their fields. http://en \ 

35 A non-disclosure agreement (NDA), also called a confidential disclosure agreement (CD A), 
confidentiality agreement or secrecy agreement, is a legal contract between at least two parties which 
outlines confidentiality materials the parties wish to share with one another for certain purposes, but 
wish to restrict from generalised use. In other words, it is a contract through which the parties agree not 
to disclose information covered by the agreement. A NDA creates a confidential relationship between 
the parties. 

RP: I guess the most significant incident that he/pat shape your views on the ethical 
issues of sharing software was the decision by the AI Lab to licence some of its 
software to two spin-off companies. 

RS: Yes, MIT did something both wrong and stupid: it made the LISP system I had 
been working on non-free software. It licensed the software to two companies [LMI 
and Symbolics 36 ] but failed to retain for MIT the right to redistribute changes made by 
those companies. 

RP: This led to Symbolics insisting that any changes they made to the software could 
not be copied to the MIT version? 

RS: Right. They decided that while users at MIT could use Symbolics' system, they 
were not allowed to put Symbolics' changes into MIT's system. They thought that if 
their changes stopped going into the MIT version it would just die, and all the MIT 
users would then switch to the Symbolics system. This would leave LMI without a 
live, maintained system version. 37 

RP: So you embarked on a coding marathon designed to ensure that all the changes 
and improvements made by Symbolics were replicated in MIT's system? 

RS: Yes, I thought of it as a war in which Symbolics had tried to invade the AI Lab. 
So I set about matching all the changes made by Symbolics. 

RP: What was the final outcome? 

RS: By 1983 LMI had grown and hired programmers, so I figured they could now do 
their own maintenance. In addition, the AI Lab had started buying a newer Symbolics 
machine, which the MIT software wouldn't run on. While I was working on the 
system I had also been thinking about the ethical issues of what had happened, and I 
could see that it was time to stop doing this. 

RP: Why? 

RS: Because I didn't like the fact that even the MIT system was now non-free 
software. This meant that by continuing to work on the MIT system I was working on 
non-free software, and I wanted to stop doing that. Besides, while I had thwarted the 
aims of Symbolic's aggression it didn't change the fact that my community was gone. 

RP: The AI Lab didn't close. 

Symbolics, Inc and Lisp Machines, Inc. (LMI), two companies spun out of the AI Lab and staffed 
by ex hackers, including Russell Noftsker and Bill Gosper (Symbolics), and Richard Greenblatt and 

( LMI I vmbolics 

37 Symbolics action was not perhaps surprising. Stallman was passing all the changes he made to the 
LISP system on to LMI, which was a competitor to Symbolics. As Levy quotes Noftsker saying in 
Hackers: "We develop a program or an advancement to our operating system and make it work, and 
that might take three months, and then under our agreement with MIL, we give that to them. And then 
[Stallman] compares it with the old ones and looks at that and sees how it works and re-implements it 
[for the LMI machines]. He calls it reverse engineering. We call it theft of trade secrets." 

RS: No, there were still professors and graduate students, but all the hackers had left 
except me, and it was the hackers who made the place exciting to hack in. It was they 
who opposed security and prevented fascism; and when they were gone what had 
been exciting about the Lab had started to change with their absence. In effect my 
community was destroyed, so in 1983 I decided to develop a Free Software operating 
system as a way of creating another community in which people were free to 

RP: Many people find the term Free Software confusing, and tend to assume that it 
implies software that is free of charge. When you use the term free, however, you are 
talking not about cost, but about the right of users to do certain things with the 
software. Perhaps it -would help if you were to define Free Software for me? 

RS: It's quite simple: Free Software is software in which the user has certain essential 
freedoms, and there are four of these freedoms. Freedom is the freedom to run the 
program as you wish; Freedom 1 is the freedom to study the source code and change 
it to do what you wish; Freedom 2 is the freedom to make copies and to distribute 
them to others; and Freedom 3 is the freedom to publish or, more generally, distribute 
modified versions. These freedoms are what define Free Software. 

RP: Why are they important? 

RS: Because they are the same freedoms people enjoy when they use recipes and 
other types of functional information. Imagine, for instance, how angry you would 
feel if you were told that starting today you could not copy or change a recipe, and 
that if you did you would be called a pirate and put in prison for years. Understand 
this and I think you will appreciate why I started the Free Software Movement. 

Free Software Movement 

RP: How did you go about creating the Free Software Movement? 

RS: First, I wrote a document addressed to hardware manufacturers asking them to 
support this as a way in which they could save money. They did not respond, so I 
rewrote the document addressing the public and programmers, and I posted it on the 
Net in 1983. I told them I was developing the GNU operating system, and that it 
would be a UNIX-like operating system. 38 I hoped programmers would join me and 
help write the code. Then on January 5 th ' 1984 I quit my job at MIT and I began 
developing GNU. 

RP: And in 1985 you founded the Free Software Foundation [FSFJ. Why? 

RS: Two or three programmers had voluntarily joined in during 1984, but I wanted to 
raise funds to pay programmers to write parts of GNU. I figured that the release of 

' 8 A copy of the letter is available here: http : //www . gnu . or g/gnu/initi al - announcement . html 

GNU Emacs" would show people that the project was not just talk, and that we could 
produce useful software. So I thought it might make sense to ask people to donate 

RP: Did you attract a lot of money? 

RS: Well, we got a lot more money from people buying tapes of the GNU Emacs text 
editor than from donations. Anyway, the Foundation grew to around 1 1 employees 
and its staff developed several essential programs. They worked, for instance, on the 
GNU C Library 40 and Bash, 41 the GNU shell. 42 

RP: How many people does the FSF employ today? 

RS: About nine. And where originally most of them were programmers, today none 
of them are. 

RP: This reflects the FSF's changing purpose? 

RS: It reflects a changing context. With a million or so people contributing to Free 
Software development, the amount of good we can do for the community by hiring a 
couple more is just not that great. 

RP: In order to support your free software efforts you also devised the notion of 
copyleft, most notably in the GNU General Public Licence, or GPL. How did you 
arrive at the notion of copyleft? 

RS: I don't entirely remember: it was years ago. I had seen people put copying 
permission statements on their emails, saying for instance: "Copying of this message 
is permitted provided this notice is preserved." I then generalised this by permitting 
modifications as well. So you could summarise copyleft as saying "Copying and 
modification of this work is permitted provided this message is preserved." However, 

'" Emacs is a class of . possessing an extensive set of features that is popular with computer 

programmers and other technically -proficient computer users. The original Emacs, a set of Editor 
MACroS for the TECQ editor, was written in 1975 by Stallman, initially together with Guy Steele . 
Many versions of Emacs have appeared over the years, but nowadays there are two that are commonly 
used: GNU EMACS (started by Stallman in 1984 and still maintained by him), and XEmacs, a fork of 
GNU Emacs which was started in 1991 and has remained mostly compatible. Both use a powerful 
extension language, Emacs Lisp, which allows them to handle tasks ranging from writing and 
compiling computer programs to browsing the web. 

40 Glibc is the GNU project's C standard library. The C standard library is a now-standardised 
collection of header files and library routines used to implement common operations, such as 
input/output and string handling, in the C programming language. Unlike other languages such as 
Pascal and PL/I, C does not include built in keywords for these tasks, so nearly all C programs rely on 
the standard library to function. iki/GNU C library 

41 Bash is a UNIX command shell written for the GNU project. Its name is an acronym for Bourne- 
again shell — a pun (Bourne again / born again) on the Bourne shell (sh), which was an early, important 
UNIX shell. Bash is the default shell on most Linux systems as well as on Mac OS X Tiger, and it can 
be run on most UNIX-like operating systems. It has also been ported to Microsoft Windows by the 
Cygwin and DJGPP projects, http : //en . wikipedi a . org/wiki/B ash 

42 In computing, a shell is a piece of software that essentially provides a kind of interface for end-users. 
Typically, the term refers to an operating system shell which provides access to the services of a kernel. 
http://en.wikn /Shell %28computing%29 

there were then various potential loopholes that had to be closed in order to make sure 
the intended result was not subverted, which is why the GPL has all the details it has. 

RP: One risk, presumably, was that someone else could appropriate the software? 

RS: Exactly. Before I started GNU, I had seen instances of software that was free but 
that had been made non-free — that is, people had modified versions of Free Software 
and then released those modified versions as non-free software. I realised that this 
would happen big time unless I could stop it, and if that had happened my goal of 
spreading freedom would have been a failure. Copyleft had to avoid that happening. 

RP: When did you develop the GPL? 

RS: The GNU General Public Licence as such was first released and used in 1989, 
but that came after various program-specific licences. There was the GNU Emacs 
General Public Licence, for instance, which had been the licence used for copies of 
GNU Emacs since the release of the first Emacs in 1985. So the basic ideas had 
existed since that time. 

RP: Your ideas clearly struck a chord with a lot of programmers, and a large number 
of Free Software projects were started. Indeed, the software that was to become the 
kernel of the GNU operating system — Linux — was developed in Finland by Linus 

RS: Well, Linux was developed years later. We had the GNU system almost 
completed before Linus added his piece. Also, I would not say that Linux is the kernel 
of the GNU system. GNU is normally used with Linux, but Linux is not a part of 

RP: Once Linux was added, however, people began referring to the combined 
GNU/Linux system nix. Why do you think so many people now assume that 

the Linux kernel is the complete operating system — and so ignore your very 
significant contribution? 

RS: I don't know. One reason may be that the term "operating system" has 
historically tended to be used in two ways. On the one hand the nature of UNIX-like 
systems is that there is no particular boundary to the set of things that are the 
operating system, which usually consists of hundreds of different programs. Since I 
was making a UNIX-like system I used that meaning of the term. On the other hand, 
there are people who teach classes on operating system development who effectively 
teach only about kernels. This ambiguity may have played a role. 

In any case, at the very beginning Torvalds said that he had written a kernel, and that 
Linux was this kernel. After a while, however, others started talking about the whole 
combination as if it were Linux — where in reality it is GNU with some pieces added. 
In fact, today's distributions of GNU/Linux often include thousands of packages. 

RP: What proportion of the whole package is Linux? 

RS: That has changed over time. The only hard figures I have come from a particular 
distribution made in 1995. At that time programs released by the GNU Project were 
28% and Linux was 3%. Then around 70% of the rest of the software came from other 
developments, but the largest part was GNU. 

Open Source Initiative 

RP: Perhaps the greater visibility: of Linux owes a lot to the launch of the Open 
Source Initiative in 1998? 

RS: I don't agree. GNU/Linux was already successful by then. Besides, the different 
philosophies of the FSF and the Open Source Movement started in the early 1990s, so 
that wasn't new either. 

RP: Why do you think that the Open Source Movement has gained so much 


RS: It's an obvious idea that if you talk about freedom to someone who thinks it is 
silly you won't have as much success as you will if you convince them that there is a 
practical reason to use it. People observed that the GNU system with Linux was 
powerful and reliable, and so they started saying: "You should use this system 
because it is powerful and reliable, and you don't have to pay any licence fees for it 

You convince more people that way — but you don't convince them as far. You get 
lots of shallow support, but lose the chance to gain deeper support. 

So you had a group of people who were saying this — and Linus Torvalds, who was 
never particularly concerned with trying to achieve freedom for programmers and 
software users, was one person who said this — and they convinced a lot of people. 
So by the mid 1990s there were millions of users of the GNU/Linux system, but most 
had never heard of the philosophy of GNU. 

RP: I think you distinguish the different philosophies of the Free Software and Open 
Source movements by saying that Open Source is a technical movement while the FSF 
is a social and political movement? 

RS: Yes, the philosophies — the basic philosophical values — are completely 
different. They converge only at the practical level. 

RP: And in common with the Open Source people you have no problem with people 
making money out of Free Software? 

RS: Not at all. But if anyone thinks that the most important thing about Free Software 
is that you can make money from it, or that it is powerful and reliable, or anything 
less fundamental than freedom, then he is not going to defend our freedom, and that is 
a serious problem — a weakness in our community. 

RP: So it is a matter of emphasis? 

RS: For some people it is a matter of emphasis. Some people do believe in freedom as 
a goal but they emphasise practical things because they think that that is the way that 
people will listen to them. But they don't realise that by giving a message that people 
listen to more, they are actually teaching a different thing. Open Source supporters 
didn't realise that, although immediately successful, this message is weakening in the 
long term. Many weren't looking to the long term. 

RP: The distinction then is that between technical superiority versus freedom? 

RS: Well, something could offer both things, but yes, they are not the same thing. 

RP: So it is a matter of prioritising them? 

RS: Exactly. All things being equal, we would rather have more powerful and reliable 
software, but it is not the central point of our activities. The question is simple: do you 
care about getting "the best" software, where that is interpreted only in a practical 
sense, or do you care more about having the software that respects your freedom? 

RP: From your perspective does the Open Source Movement have pluses and 
minuses, or is it all bad? 

RS: Open Source advocates do contribute to our community — not all of them, but 
many of them. There are people who develop Free Software that were motivated by 
the Open Source Movement rhetoric, for instance. These programs are good, so that is 
a good thing. The bad aspect is that it is weak: it doesn't teach people to see a freedom 
to defend, so they don't defend their freedom, and they won't defend our freedom. 

RP: The Open Source Mc i nt Iso lays great stress on the development method 
pioneered by Torvalds when he was working on Linux. Later described by Eric 
Raymond as the Bazaar method, this involves organising a large army of 
programmers over the Internet in a way that enables much faster development, and 
far fewer bugs. Does the FSF also espouse this method? 

RS: We have nothing against it, but the question is a secondary one for us. It may be 
true that Free Software facilitates the use of the Bazaar method, and it may be true 
that this provides benefits, but fundamentally it has nothing to do with Free Software 
— the choice of development method is not what Free Software is about. So while it 
may have some side bonus, for us it is not the goal or the crucial point. 

RP: Do you feel that the agenda you mapped out when you established the Free 
Software Movement has been subverted? 

RS: It has been very badly subverted. In fact, it has been nearly lost. The distribution 
I told you about in 1995 that had 28% of programs released by the GNU Project was 
an entirely free distribution, and in those days it was not hard to find entirely free 
distributions. Today it is hard to find distributions that are entirely free. 

RP: How did this happen? 

RS: Somebody had the idea of adding non-free programs to the GNU/Linux 
distribution in order to tell users that they were getting a "bonus". Others then 
concluded that they had to compete with that, and began to offer non-free "bonuses" 
too. The result is that today we have tens of millions of people using a version of the 
GNU system, and yet the goal of making a completely free operating system has been 
not just forgotten but almost totally cancelled. 

RP: Who was primarily responsible for this? 

RS: It has been a general phenomenon in the community. However, one thing that 
was harmful was when Linus gave permission to dynamically link to non-free drivers. 
This has encouraged non-free programs to be included in GNU/Linux, including some 
applications and some drivers. Linus' decision was part of the problem, although not 

RP: Can you expand on the problem of non-free drivers? 

RS: Many devices won't work with the usual version of Linux because they only 
work with some non-free drivers, so if you use those non-free drivers then the system 
is not free. This is a big problem for us: we don't want to tell people that they should 
use those non-free drivers, but there is clearly a problem if the only way to make 
Linux — which is an important part of the whole system — run on certain hardware is 
to use a non-free driver. 

RP: So what 

RS: Please listen to me. If I am continuing to talk I wish you wouldn't jump in so fast. 

RP: Ok, but I am not always sure when you have stopped answering a question; 
maybe you could flag when you have finished? 

RS: But you shouldn't interrupt; and you shouldn't guess at my answers. It is driving 
me nuts [Stallman bangs the table]. 

Anyway, we can't stop people using these non-free drivers, but that doesn't mean we 
should be involved in helping people get them. Just because we can't stop something 
doesn't mean we should accept it. So we are recruiting people to maintain pages to 
give information about which hardware runs with Free Software and which doesn't. 
This helps people know what to buy, and helps us put pressure on the hardware 

We also want to talk to these manufacturers. I have been to Taiwan, for example, 
talking with the Taiwanese manufacturers — because a lot of them actually have 
policies that cooperate with us. 

RP: What is it you want them to do: write free drivers? 

RS: Not necessarily. If they wrote free drivers it would be nice, but we don't need 
them to do that. All we need is for them to give us the hardware specs so that we can 
write the drivers ourselves. 

RP: A free driver would be one for which the source code was freely available, and 
which was licensed under copyleft? 

RS: A free driver is a driver that's Free Software — users have the four freedoms. It 
doesn't have to be copylefted. 

Patenting software 

RP: One area where I suspect you and the Open Source Movement can agree is on 
software patents? 

RS: Right. I believe that all software should be free, and that is a controversial belief. 
Opposing software patents is not radical: it is what most software developers believe. 

RP: What is the problem with software patents? 

RS: Software patents directly restrict how each computer user is allowed to use their 
computer. So you are talking about directly restricting millions of users, which is 

RP: This is because software now runs on so many devices? 

RS: No, it is just that so many people have computers. We don't even have to talk 
about embedded devices. You, for instance, have a computer; you probably don't want 
to be threatened with lawsuits if you run your computer in a certain way. That is 
exactly what software patents threaten. 

RP: You are saying that even computer users can be sued if a program they are using 
infringes a patent? 

RS: Yes. Not just the developers and the distributors of programs, but the users of 
programs can be sued. 

RP: Patents are used in many areas, and have been used for hundreds of years. Is 
there something different about software then? 

RS: Absolutely. One important difference is the way that patents relate to products. If 
you consider pharmaceutical products, for instance, you will find that even today the 
number of patents covering one drug is not likely to be very large. A software 
program, by contrast, will combine thousands of different techniques — which may 
be algorithms or features — and many of these might now be patented. 

If you are not a programmer, the way to understand what software patents do is to 
think of an analogy with symphonies or novels. These can be quite large, and they 

will implement many ideas together in a single work. If we allowed literary ideas to 
be patented it would be dangerous for anyone writing a novel because their work 
would probably contain thousands of ideas, and if these ideas could be patented it 
would be hard to write a novel without being sued. 43 

RP: Can you give me an example of how this might work with software? 

RS: Sure. Consider, for instance, how many programs use a progress bar to show how 
far the program has got in performing a task. No one sat down and said: "I am going 
to create a program to display a progress bar." They were just writing various 
programs to do different jobs and in the process made those programs display 
progress bars as a way of being helpful to the user. According to the European Patent 
Office, however, the progress bar is patented. That progress bar will be a tiny part of a 
program, and yet a patent covers that tiny part. Moreover, the same program may be 
covered by hundreds of other patents as well. And if any those patented techniques 
can be seen in your program you can be sued. 

The amazing thing is that the people who are in favour of software patents claim it is 
a way to promote progress. They just don't look carefully at what it would mean, what 
its real effects would be 

RP: And software patents are a direct threat to Free Software? 

RS: Absolutely. The clearest example of this is the Linux kernel itself. A lawyer in 
the US has reported finding 283 different US software patents, each forbidding 
something he found going on inside the many lines of Linux. And remember he was 
talking just about the kernel. The whole GNU/Linux system is 400 times bigger 
according to an estimate I read, so we could estimate 100,000 different patents each 
prohibiting something done in the whole system. 

Battle for freedom 

RP: In justifying the need for software code to be free you made an analogy with 
recipes. You also once said "I believe that all generally usefid information should be 
free. By 'free' I am not referring to price, but rather to the freedom to copy the 
information and adapt it to one 's own uses. " Software code aside, you see social 
benefit in other types of information being free? 

RS: I do. But the medium is not the issue. The crucial factor is the social use of the 
work concerned. Software is an instance of a practical functional work. It does a 
practical job by making a computer do something. There are various other kinds of 
functional works, and I believe they should always be free in the same way as 
software should be. For instance, I believe that encyclopaedias should be free, and it 

Indeed, patent agent and inventor Andrew Knight has already filed a patent with the US Patent and 
Trademark Office, claiming patent protection for a fictional storyline. 
http://www >vie plotline patent/ 

is nice that we now have Wikipedia, which I would say was the extension to 
encyclopaedias of the Free Software Movement. 

However, for some works of authorship and art, the issues are different. Music, for 
instance, is generally not a functional work, it is in the category of artistic and 
entertainment works. As far as this category is concerned I believe people should 
always have the freedom to non-commercially redistribute exact copies of the entire 
work. That is the minimum freedom that everyone must have for those kinds of 

RP: That too is a radical position, and no doubt explains why you have strong views 
on digital rights management [DRMJ? 

RS: You mean "digital restrictions management". Those who gain power from DRM 
may refer to "rights" — but that's their form of doublespeak. For the public DRM 
means restrictions. And DRM is evil and shouldn't be allowed. 

RP: Why? 

RS: First of all it prevents Free Software from doing useful jobs, so it is unfair to Free 
Software. However, that is a secondary thing: since DRM imposes unacceptable 
restrictions on users it is simply evil. 

RP: So this is both a Free Software issue, and a civil liberties issue? 

RS: Yes. Take for instance corrupt discs (disks that have been "corrupted" by means 
of DRM). Not only can they not be read and played with Free Software, but users 
cannot copy them either. To cripple people's computers so that they can't copy is 
wrong; to stop people from copying is wrong. Both things are unfair. 

RP: Industry groups like the RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America 45 ] and 
MPAA [The Motion Picture Association of America 46 ] argue that without technical 

Wikipedia is a "free-content" encyclopaedia that anyone can edit. Since established in 2001 the 
English version has seen over one million articles added. The footnotes in The Basement Interviews 
owe a great debt of gratitude to Wikipedia, as the constant references will demonstrate. 

45 The RIAA was formed in 1952. Its primary purpose at that time was to administer the RIAA 
equalisation curve. This is a technical standard of frequency response applied to vinyl records during 
manufacturing and playback. The RIAA has continued to participate in creating and administering 
technical standards for later systems of music recording and reproduction, including magnetic tape, 
cassette tapes, digital audio tapes, CDs and software -based digital technologies. 

The RIAA also participates in the collection, administration and distribution of music licenses and 
royalties. The RIAA has been at the heart of the file-sharing controversy, especially music files in the 
popular MP3 format uploaded onto the Internet using peer-to-peer software. The RIAA has long 
contended that sharing of copyrighted music was a form of piracy, applying the well-known computing 
term to music. 

46 The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), originally called the Motion Pictures 
Producers and Distributors Association, is a non-profit trade association based in the United States 
which was formed to advance the interests of movie studios. Its members consist of the "big seven" 
major Hollywood studios. The organisation produces the well-known voluntary film rating system. The 
motion-picture equivalent of the RIAA, the MPAA has also taken strong steps to reduce the number of 
file-sharing sites online where copyrighted films are available for download. 

protection measures like DRM their businesses could not survive in a digital 
environment, since information can now be copied so easily. How would you reply to, 
say, a movie industry executive who said: "We need to protect our business; what else 
would you have us do?" 

RS: I would reply that operating from purely selfish motives is no excuse for 
mistreating people. There is this bizarre idea nowadays that all a person has to do to 
excuse nasty treatment of others is to say: "I am just trying to make money." As if 
making money were so admirable that it could justify absolutely anything. "Oh, I 
punched him in the nose; but I am trying to make money, so let me do it." 

There are, by the way, many other ways in which money can be made from things like 
movies and music. So the decision to use DRM is not a question of whether or not 
they can make money, but rather of how much money they can make. 

RP: What connections do you see between Free Software and the various other free 
and open movements? I'm thinking, for instance, of movements like Creative 
Commons, Open Access, Open Spectrum, Open Journalism, and Open Politics? 

RS: Open means a lot of things and most have little to do with Free Software, so I 
don't use the term. However, there is clearly growing recognition that the Internet 
facilitates sharing. As a result we see a lot of people who want to share things, and a 
lot of other people who are trying to stop that sharing. 

RP: This struggle is an inevitable by-product of the development of digital networks? 

RS: That's right. 

RP: I understand your discomfort with the word "open", but your thinking has 
undoubtedly influenced many of those working in these other movements. 
Interestingly, when I spoke to Lawrence Lessig I asked him why he had called his 
book "Free Culture", 47 and not "Open Culture". He answered that it had been a 
deliberate choice, and added: "Richard Stallman is right — this is not about business: 
it is about culture. " 

RS: Yes, it is. But I would have to say that the opinion he takes in that book does not 
correspond to mine. It is a much weaker position, and I found it somewhat 
disappointing. He is less ethically firm. For instance, he won't say that it is simply 
wrong to stop people sharing. I may have influenced him some, but I have influenced 
him only half as much I would have liked. 

RP: But would you say he has played an important role in broadening the debate 
beyond just software? 

RS: I don't want to answer that question. I don't like being handed a quotation and 
asked to utter it. 

Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control 
Creativity; Lawrence Lessig, Penguin, 2004 

RP: Do you support the Creative Commons movement? 

RS: The original Creative Commons licences all gave people the minimum freedom 
of being able to distribute verbatim copies non-commercially, so I supported their use 
— for art at least. But then they developed other licences that do not provide that 
essential freedom, and that is a serious problem. I have asked them to look at going 
back to the original policy. 

RP: Do you have any hope that they might do that? 

RS: I have a hope, but I don't know what they are going to do. 

RP: What about the Open Access movement, 48 which wants to see all scholarly papers 
made freely available on the Internet. Do you support that? 

RS: Yes, and I am a signatory of the Budapest Initiative. 49 1 have, by the way, been 
urging them to make the freedom to redistribute a central part of their demands. It is 
not enough to have one site where everyone can download the information: people 
must be free to set up mirror sites too. However, when it comes to scientific papers I 
don't think people should have the freedom to publish modified versions; modified 
versions of someone else's scientific article are not a contribution to society. 

RP: I understand you may be reluctant to give unqualified support to some of these 
other movements, but I am struck that in struggling with what you call the ethics of 
Free Software you articulated issues that have come to exercise the minds of people in 
a wide range of different areas. You talked about the way in which the Internet 
encourages sharing, but essentially, we are witnessing a struggle between proprietary 
andfi'ee infoi ■dels, are we not? 

RS: Right. It is a struggle between systems that are essentially fascist — in that they 
give businesses power over people — and systems that respect freedom. 

RP: I'm wondering how you might see this playing out. In 1997, for instance, you 
wrote a short story called The Right to Read. 50 This painted a gloomy picture of the 
future, where copyright laws had become so draconian that people -were imprisoned if 
they lent their books — or more accurately the computers on which their books were 

Open access (OA) is the free online availability of digital content. It is best-known and most feasible 
for peer-reviewed scientific and scholarly journal articles, which scholars publish without expectation 
of pav merit. There are two roads to OA, with many variations. In open access publishing, also known 
as the "golden" road to OA, journals make their articles openly accessible immediately on publication 
(by means of the author — or more usually the author's research funder or institution — paying the 
publication costs). One example of an open access publisher is the . In open 

access self-archiving, also called the "green" road to OA, authors make copies of their own published 
articles openly accessible, generally in a subject or institutional repository. One of the major 
international statements on open access, which includes a definition, background information, and a list 
of signatories, is the Budapest Open Access Initiative of 2002. A second major international initiative, 
dating from 2003, is the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and 
Humanities. access 

49 Budapest Open Access Initiative, 

50 The Right to Read, Richard Stallman 

stored — to anyone else. That was nine years ago. Do you feel more or less optimistic 
about the likelihood of such a world arriving today? 

RS: I tend to be a pessimist by nature, and I can't see the future — so to some extent I 
am unable to answer that question. What I can say is that the part of that story that I 
didn't think anyone would think of introducing is now being proposed with 
treacherous computing. 

RP: When yon say treacherous computing you are referring to "trusted computing" 51 

— where the ability to enforce usage policies on computers would be built into the 
hardware. This would allow third parties, for instance, to control how we use our 
computers regardless of the user's -wishes? 

RS: Yes. I saw an announcement recently that Intel has already put treacherous 
computing into a couple of processor chips. That suggests that the threat is coming 

RP: That's a depressing thought; but in the struggle between free and proprietary 
models there will surely be gains and losses on both sides. The striking down of the 
"broadcast flag" 52 sends a positive message for those who support a freer model for 
instance. Similarly, while repressive new laws like the Induce Act 5 ' are frequently 
proposed, new laws that support the freedoms you value are starting to gain support 

— The Public Domain Enhancement Act 54 for instance. Presumably some freedoms 
that are lost will be won back? 

RS: It is possible. But Congress in the US is on the side of business, not the side of 
the public. 55 In any case, I think it is a mistake to speculate on which side is going to 
win. That is the wrong way to look at a fight for freedom. 

RP: You are saying that we should not speculate on who might win the battle? 

Trusted computing is a family of open specifications whose stated goal is to make personal 
computers more secure through the use of dedicated hardware. Critics, including academics, security 
experts, and users of free and open source software, contend, however, that the overall effect (and 
perhaps intent) of trusted computing is to impose unreasonable restrictions on how people can use their 

52 On 6 th May 2005 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled that the Federal 
Communications Commission did not have the authority to prohibit the manufacture of computer and 
video hardware that doesn't have copy protection technology known as the "broadcast flag." The 
regulations, which the FCC created in November 2003, had been intended to limit unauthorised 
Internet redistribution of over-the-air TV broadcasts. flag 

53 The Inducing Infringement of Copyrights Act of 2004 proposed making technology companies liable 
for manufacturing products that encourage people to infringe copyrights. 

54 The Public Domain Enhancement Act would make it easier for older and endangered copyrighted 
works to fall into the public domain. If passed, the bill would add a tax for copyrighted works to retain 
their copyright status. The purpose of the bill is to make it easier to determine who holds a copy 1 1 ght 
(by determining the identity of the person who paid the tax), and to allow copyrighted works which 
have been abandoned by their owners to pass into the public domain. For current status see: 

55 Indeed, on 2 nd March 2006 new federal legislation was announced designed to introduce a broadcast 
flag for digital and satellite audio receivers. This would mean that digital radio receivers without 
government-approved copy -prevention technology might become illegal, http ://news. com, com/2 1 00- 
1028 3-6045225.html 

RS: I am. I agree there is a battle for freedom, but it is a mistake to try to pick a 
winner. That very terminology implies you are a spectator. Journalists are trained to 
think as spectators and they have practices that tend to lead the public to look at these 
battles as spectators, or gamblers; and that is the wrong way. To try to cover any 
democratic political struggle, or any fight for freedom, in terms of who might win, or 
who seems likely to win, is a mistake; it tells people the outcome is decided, so don't 
bother to participate. To imply that the outcome is determined is to tell the public that 
they have no say, and so is anti-democratic. 

RP: How should journalists cover it? 

RS: They should show the public what the various possible outcomes would lead to 
so that people can decide which side to be on. To tell the people what the various 
sides are, and what they are fighting for, enables the public to join a side. That 
encourages democracy. 

RP: Journalists try to do this by quoting spokespeople from both points of view and 
letting the public decide that way. 

RS: That's a minor detail of the mistake of trying to predict who is going to win, and 
that is why I am refusing to provide a quote. 

RP: Point taken, but what do you see as the end game of the Free Software 

RS: I don't see such things. I don't have a vision of future moves in a long-term game 
plan. I am not very good at playing such games. For that reason I am not much good 
at playing chess. 

RP: I am wondering if perhaps for you the motivation is the struggle itself rather 
than winning the fight. 

RS: No, no. That is a misunderstanding. I am fighting for the result. You engage in a 
fight for freedom because you want freedom. I am not saying you shouldn't think 
about the goal. I am saying that we shouldn't speculate about whether we are going to 

RP: It's about keeping the mind focused then? 

RS: No, that's not it. I don't want to repeat myself. If you were paying attention you'd 
know that's not so. I am getting rather disturbed about this because I say things and 
you reinterpret them — and your reinterpretation is so different from what I said. 
What I said was that to change the subject, from the issue at stake to the question of 
who is going to win, discourages people from participating in the fight, because if 
they think the outcome is determined they have no reason to participate. This isn't 
narrowly a matter of how to "keep-your-mind-focused". It's much more basic: it 
informs people of what issue there is to think about. 

RP: OK. My assm, • i mid apply to those engaged in the 

struggle: if they spend time speculating about who will win, and how things will turn 
out, then they too might decide that participation is either unnecessary, or not 

RS: We should be thinking of the end result that we seek and how to make progress 
towards it, which is different from trying to predict the outcome. 

RP: What we learn from this interchange, I guess, is that you are very, very keen that 
total understanding is achieved? 

RP: That is worth noting because most people are not like that. 

RS: Well, the way I see it is that I am talking to the public through you. I have a 
message for them and I want them to understand what it is we are fighting for. I want 
them to join us in the fight. 

RP: Right, and I would also like the public to know something about Richard 
Stallman: the kind of person he is. 

RS: I don't mind that. 

RP: And what we are discovering perhaps is that Richard Stallman is a combative 

RS: It might be true. [Stallman gets up and spends most of the rest of the interview 
moving around, doing dance steps, picking at food]. Of course when it comes to 
judging my personality I am biased and not competent to answer. I know some things 
about myself, but at the same time I am not reliable in summing them up. 


RP: Looking back on your life and the development of the Free Software Movement, 
is there anything you would have done differently? 

RS: I haven't asked myself that question, and I don't know if I really want to answer a 
question like that. But there might have been certain details of things that happened 
that I would do differently. 

RP: Could you name some? 

RS: I would rather not go that much into self-criticism. They were small details; 
nothing large. 

RP: I have noticed that you use the term "community" a lot. Open source people do 
too. This is a strong concept for hackers, is it? 

RS: Well they are not all hackers, some of them just use the software, but they are 
part of a community where people often help each other. Proprietary software forbids 

RP: What strikes me is that it is a community frequently at war with itself? 

RS: Communities often have political disagreements. That's normal with 
communities, and it's normal for human beings. 

RP: The concept of community is certainly important to you personally isn't it? 

RS: Yes. I want there to be people who help me when I need help; and I am willing to 
help other people. 

RP: Was losing your community at the AI Lab ? 

RS: I lost my home. 

RP: Yes; and you talked of Harvard in similar terms. My point is that community and 
home are clearly powerful concepts for you. I an i ■ .. hat coming 

from a broken home has made the idea of home and c more important to 

you than for most people, and whether that has therefore been a strong motivating 
force in your life. 

RS: Probably. I never felt I had a home until I was at College; and then I lost my 
home. Harvard was the first place I ever really felt was my home. 

RP: Why? 

RS: It was a place where in general people were not angry with me; and that was just 
so peaceful compared with the way things usually were. While I was growing up, I 
was in the midst of so much anger. So I was very glad to be away from all that. 

RP: Your parents were angry with each another? 

RS: They were angry with me, and sometimes with other things. 

RP: Why angry with you? 

RS: I don't know. I don't want to go too much into that. My father had a generally 
angry sort of personality , and so he would just tend to be angry at whatever. 

RP: I'm also conscious that in homes in which there has been constant warring, 
people often feel it is very important to make clear what they stand for, and what they 
don't stand for. You have very firm views on right and wrong. Might this be a product 
of your early life? 

RS: It's true that everything about a person and what they do can be explained by 
their history — and history here includes both their genes and previous events in their 

life — but that still does not mean we can always find out why a person was 
motivated to do a particular thing. You should also beware of the mistaken idea that 
identifying explanations for someone's leanings devalues what was done by him. It is 
good to have a clear idea of what you stand for, for instance. 

RP: I am not thinking so much about the value that should be placed on actions, but 
the explanation for them. In this case a connection between your childhood and your 
powerful views on what is right and wrong? 

RS: I wouldn't be surprised if there isn't a connection. It is also likely that my 
childhood experience was part of the reason why I was so glad when I found a home, 
and so sad I lost it. It is a commonplace idea that your childhood home changes into 
something else and you cannot go home again; but that happened to me in 16 months 
when I graduated from college — in 16 months my home had changed so much that 
there was nothing about it any more that related to being my home. All the people I 
was friends with had gone. That was really, really sad for me. 

RP: Isn't that supposed to happen when you go to college: you spend some time there, 
you graduate, and then you move on? 

RS: I don't know about "supposed", but it did not make sense to me that my home 
was supposed to disappear. 

RP: Then you found the AI Lab ? 

RS: And that died too. 56 

RP: And the Free Software Movement: did that become a new home? 

RS: Sort of. Certainly I had that in mind when I started it; but it is not the same kind 
of thing, because it is a dispersed community rather than a geographical one. So it's 
not as if I spend my time in one place as part of the Free Software community and feel 
that I am at home. It is very different when it involves travelling all the time. 

RP: So where is your home today? 

RS: I don't know if I have one. Last time I felt I had a home was when I had a 
sweetheart. Her house felt like home. That was a year and a half ago — somewhat 
more perhaps. 

RP: So you are looking for a new home now ? 

RS: It would be nice if some day I had a sweetheart again [Stallman's voice breaks a 
little]. But I couldn't exactly say I am looking for one now. 

56 Of course, as Stallman explained earlier, the AI Lab didn't die. Indeed, it carried on for many years 
until, in 2003, it was merged with the Laboratory for Computer Science . AI Lab . What he means is that the community he had been working 
with, and heavily identified with, dispersed. 

Liberator of Cyberspace 

RP: In 1990 you were awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. Is that how you fund 

RS: Actually that ended in 1995. 

RP: So how do you fund yourself today? 

RS: I get paid for some of my speeches. In addition, when I am travelling in a lot of 
places people don't let me pay for anything, so life is cheaper. This is sort of amusing 
and makes me a little bit like a medieval king. Medieval kings had to keep travelling 
all the time because if they stayed in one place they would burden the people there so 
much that the people would eventually get mad! 

RP: Is that an adequate way of funding yourself? 

RS: Loads of people invite me to visit them, and if I am there for a few days they are 
happy to do things like pay for my food, and they pay for me to go there, because 
otherwise I would go somewhere else instead. And some of them also pay a fee. 

RP: How would you like your contribution to the world to be seen in the future? 

RS: My aim is to be the liberator of cyberspace. That is my public mission. 

RP: Again, this is both about Free Software and about civil rights? 

RS: Absolutely. It is about freedom and human rights. 

RP: The kinds of issues the Electronic Frontier Foundation 57 (EFF) fights for? 

RS: In general terms, but the EFF mainly fights to extend already established ideas of 
human rights to activities done with computers, whereas I say there are new human 
rights that apply specifically to, first of all, using software, but secondly to using types 
of information when you have digital technology available. The EFF does not say that 
software should be free. So I support the EFF in what it does, but I am doing 
something that the EFF does not support. 

RP: How does the political objective of freedom at the heart of your project fit into 
the larger political landscape? For apolitical agenda it seems a very focused, dare I 
say hermetic, mission? 

RS: Well, it comes from my general political ideals but, yes, it is an issue about one 
particular area of life. 

57 The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is a non-profit advocacy and legal organisation based in 
the United States with the stated purpose of being dedicated to preserving free speech rights such as 
those protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution in the context of today's 
digital age. Its stated main goal is to educate the press, policymakers and the general public about civil 
liberties issues related to technology; and to act as a defender of those liberties 

RP: So your position is that this is the one area in which you can fight, because you 
know about it? 

RS: Exactly. It was for me always an area where I could fight for freedom by writing 
software, by doing what I was good at. I focus on this area because, you might say, it 
is my responsibility because it's in my field of work. 

RP: But how can you have a small isolated piece of freedom in a society in which 
many other things are working against the freedom envisaged by free software? 

RS: You can't. Fascism, remember, is the convergence of government and business 
and disrespecting people's freedom. So what they do is prohibit Free Software, and 
they impose software patents. 

RP: Do you ever hope that your work with Free Software and copyleft might have a 
broader relevance, and lead to wider social change? 

RS: It has already extended beyond software to other kinds of functional work. But if 
you wanted to generalise beyond that the only thought I have — and it is hardly an 
idea original to me — is that the world should not be run according to the interests of 
business. And there it fuses with other movements. 

RP: You mentioned your genera! politics. Where do you stand politically? 

RS: I stand for freedom and democracy. 

RP: I guess the gun lobby might say the same thing? 

RS: They would but I don't believe in that particular detail. That is, I don't agree with 
their particular demands. In general I stand for human rights and democracy. 

RP: And what do you see as the role of the state? 

RS: The role of the state is to protect people and maintain the general well being, 
which includes a welfare state and it includes preventing any private parties from 
having so much power that they subvert democracy. 

RP: A social democrat then? 

RS: Very likely. If I lived in Europe I would probably vote Green. 58 

RP: On your web site 59 you call for a boycott of Caterpillar 60 for selling the 
bulldozers Israel uses to knock down Palestinian homes. green parties 


60 Caterpillar Inc. describes itself as "the world's leading manufacturer of construction and mining 
equipment, diesel and natural gas engines and industrial gas turbines." The company has been a target 
for activists around the US for a few years now, for selling equipment to the Israeli military, including 
bulldozers used to knock down Palestinian houses. 

RS: That is just one of many things I mention. I list details of battles that I consider to 
be important causes in order to educate others. 

RP: The Caterpillar one is interesting because you are Jewish, aren't you? 

RS: I am an atheist but of Jewish ancestry. 

RP: And in the context of the Middle East your sympathies lie with the Palestinians 7 

RS: I have relatives in Israel and I don't want them to be hurt, and I don't want Israel 
to be destroyed, but that doesn't mean I am going to endorse vicious measures that 
trample on the rights of others, and I would say the Israeli State is doing much more 
evil than the Palestinians are doing. Essentially, living in the Left Bank under 
occupation is like life in prison; and I am not one of those who would say that 
absolutely anything is justified to protect us, to the point where questions of right and 
wrong no longer apply. 

RP: You have also published some short pieces on Iraq. How would you sum up your 
view on the invasion? 

RS: It is clear that Bush had some reason of his own to attack Iraq, which I suppose 
has to do with grabbing the oil and enriching his cronies. So we had the fabricated 
excuse of weapons of mass destruction and we had the fabricated excuse of Iraq 
working with Al Qaeda, and we had the fabricated excuse of giving Iraq democracy, 
as if Bush would give anybody democracy. Bush hardly knows what democracy is 
after he has crushed it. 

RP: So the invasion of Iraq was all bad? 

RS: All bad. By the standards of Nuremberg, 61 Bush is guilty of war crimes. He 
would have been executed at Nuremberg for this. I do not advocate executing Bush 
because I am against the death penalty, but I believe he should be kept in prison for 
the rest of his life. 

RP: Do you ever get any hate email? 

RS: I get occasional angry emails. I got one message a few weeks ago that was so 
vituperative that I didn't answer it. Most of them I do answer however: there is not 
that much and most seems to be fairly rational. Generally, they are just confused 
about a particular point, so I talk to them a bit. 

RP: Thank you for your time. 

61 The Nuremberg Trials were the sets of trials of officials involved in World War II and the Holocaust 
during the Nazi regime. The trials were held in the city of Nuremberg, Germany, from 1945 to 1949, at 
the Nuremberg Palace of Justice. 

© 2006 Richard Poynder 

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